“John 3:16” by Doug Floyd, 2010 (Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic CC BY-SA 2.0)
John 3.1-4 (NIV)
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
There was a summer I worked as a day laborer.
One of my bosses reminded me of a skinny (and not as cool) version of Sylvester Stallone. I was supposed to help him move a bunch of metal medical record shelves from a basement in Evans Army Hospital. It was a lot of work, but he wouldn’t let me, or any other workers he was paying, help all that much. He just wanted extra hands for the grunt work. He wouldn’t trust any of us with hammers or screwdrivers. He pretty much just had us stand around until it was time to haul the shelves to his truck.
We could have been so much more useful.
But he wouldn’t trust us.
It really bugged me.
I guess it made it worse that the winter before, when I worked in an art museum they had me moving around ancient clay pottery and one of a kind sculptures … I even carried a Georgia O’Keefe painting in my hands … The museum trusted me with so much … and this guy wouldn’t even trust me with worn out metal shelves that were destined for the scrapyard.
Here, when we first meet Nicodemus, he seems a lot like that boss who wouldn’t trust his employees.
Nicodemus has heard about Jesus.
I think he is curious about Jesus.
But I don’t think he understands who Jesus is … and I really don’t think he trusts Jesus at all.
I’m curious if Nicodemus realized what he was getting himself into when he approached Jesus.
John 3.5-21 (NIV)
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Throughout John’s Gospel, light symbolizes belief and darkness stands for unbelief. It isn’t an accident Nicodemus approached Jesus in the darkness of night.
Nicodemus had a lot to lose by associating with Jesus … he doesn’t seem ready to follow Jesus.
Also, did you notice Nicodemus said, “we” when he first talked to Jesus? “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God, and that no one can do the signs you are doing apart from the presence of God”– What if Nicodemus wasn’t alone in his curiosity? What if he represented a group?
Had they heard what John the Baptist said about Jesus, that Jesus was the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world? Had they heard that Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, or how Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple?
It turns out Nicodemus was only skimming the surface in his understanding of Jesus.
Jesus is more than a good teacher, but as a good teacher Jesus tries to guide Nicodemus to a deeper and fuller understanding of who he is and what it means to follow him.
To John believing is more than knowing something or agreeing with a set of facts. Belief is trusting, belief is being willing to put your whole confidence, your whole weight in something. Belief in Jesus isn’t just memorizing facts about Jesus and keeping a lot of rules. Belief has to do with living in a trusting relationship with Jesus.
Encouraging people to believe, to live in a trusting relationship with Jesus was John’s whole purpose for writing his gospel.
Nicodemus approached Jesus with what he thought was a good understanding of who Jesus is, but he came in darkness, he came not trusting Jesus.
As Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, he was encouraged to move toward the light – to trust Jesus, as more than a teacher and miracle worker. He was invited to live in relationship Jesus, the one who best reveals God’s character and intentions for humanity.
Jesus’ lesson brought Nicodemus to a place where he had to make a decision.
Either Jesus is the Son of God, sent into the world because God loves the world and wants to save the world, or he is not.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote,
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. God living and breathing among us, showing us God’s heart. Giving his life so we can have life with God, life right now and forever.
Jesus is more than a good teacher.
We don’t see how Nicodemus responded, Jesus takes over the conversation, and Nicodemus just fades away. In chapter 7 of John’s Gospel Nicodemus shows up again.
The Pharisees tried to have Jesus arrested. The temple police heard Jesus teach and they just couldn’t do it, they had never heard anyone like Jesus. The Pharisees accused the police of being deceived …
John 7:48-52 (NIV)
“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
Nicodemus moved closer to daylight, closer to belief, closer to trusting Jesus no matter what the consequences. He didn’t confess his faith in Jesus, but he risked standing up for Jesus.
… Nicodemus shows up another time – in John 19 after Jesus was crucified.
John 19:38-42 (NIV)
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
It looks like Nicodemus was taking more risks for Jesus. Nicodemus was willing to give an extravagant amount of his resources to prepare Jesus’ body to be buried. Nicodemus could be taking some steps away from the night, some steps away from unbelief, toward the daylight of belief.
It still doesn’t look like he has everything figured out – he still may be misunderstanding what is going to happen to Jesus, but Nicodemus’ actions, fully understanding or not, play a part in the Easter story. They set the scene for Mary Magdalene, early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark, to discover the empty tomb of Easter morning.
John doesn’t have much space for gray in his gospel, John talks about darkness and light – there isn’t much in between. Sooner or later a person has to make some sort of commitment to Jesus. They have to decide if Jesus really is who he says he is, that he is God’s Son, God in skin and bones, who gave his life to show the world how much God loves it and to give the world eternal life. They have to take that risk of trusting Jesus.
In John’s gospel some people encounter Christ, and instantly their lives are different, immediately they put their full trust and confidence in Christ. There are some people who quickly reject Jesus and walk away, but there are others, like Nicodemus, who take more time.
Jesus invites Nicodemus, Jesus invites you and me, to trust him … to trust he is who he says he is … and to stake our lives on his promise that God’s foundational orientation toward the world, the basis of God’s relationship toward you and me is love … and that Jesus gives us the best picture there is of who God is and what God wants for us. For some people, they see it right away. For other people, people more like Nicodemus, it might take longer to develop that trust.
The question for Nicodemus … the question for us is, will we commit ourselves to knowing Jesus and living in relationship with him?
Will we trust Jesus to be who he says he is?
And will we allow that trust shape our lives?